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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Aruba - Shawn and Andrea at The Ritz

The kids are in Alaska with G-Pa and G-Ma, so Andrea and I decided we should go somewhere fun over the Memorial Day weekend while we didn't have kids around. We had initially planned to go to Sea Island for a few nights, but the rates during the particular weekend were exorbitant, so we canceled that and reserved a hotel in Orlando instead. As the date approached, we just weren't very excited about it and started to look at going to Cape Cod. The hotel options were awful, and Andrea started looking around at places that we could fly directly to with our Southwest points from Orlando, and she found some good flights to Aruba. The nonstop flights that we scheduled allowed us to stay in Aruba for 6 days.

We last visited Aruba on our honeymoon cruise in 2004 and we enjoyed it and always wanted to go back. Our honeymoon visit was just for a day, so we wanted to experience and explore the island a little more extensively. 

We drove to Orlando on Friday evening and flew out to Aruba on Saturday morning. The flight was only a few hours, and after landing we got a taxi to the casita where we reserved a room for 5 nights. The casita was super cute and across the street from the beach, just a very short walk. We went over for lunch in the afternoon at the Ritz and then swam in the crystal clear and calm waters at the beach.

The good news is that we loved the area where we were staying, but the actual casita was not very comfortable. It had tile flooring throughout, the dehumidifier was noisy and had an odd odor, the hot water wasn't very warm, and the mattress and bedding were horrible. After an uncomfortable and fitful night of sleep, I went to the office to see if we could wriggle out from our reservation. It was against their policy and they tried to talk me out of it, but they eventually relented and refunded us for the remainder of the nights on our reservation.

We excitedly packed up our things and Andrea called the Ritz, which was just across the street. Thankfully they had a perfect room available for us and a very friendly manager at the front desk got us a deal on the room. We dragged our suitcases down the sidewalk and in to our much nicer room.

Sunday morning was spent moving in to our new room, and then relaxing at the beach, and lunch again at the beach restaurant. In the afternoon we walked a mile down the beach to the Aruba Watersports Center and to the catamaran that was scheduled to take us out for sailing and snorkeling.

We took a small boat out to the catamaran and then the crew introduced themselves and we set sail. The staff cranked up the music and they had an open bar, so everyone spread out and enjoyed the ride. I sprawled out on the netting area up front and it was nice and quiet, with a cool breeze. Andrea dangled her feet in it, but wasn't comfortable going down in it until we were on the ride back.

I knew that our first stop was at a shipwreck, but I was entirely unprepared for the size and scale of it. The SS Antilla was scuttled in the opening days of World War II and some of areas of the boat are in surprisingly shallow water.

Andrea wasn't comfortable in the deep water snorkeling so she stayed on the boat, but I loved the view of the massive boat in the clear water. We were warned against swimming behind our catamaran as there was boat traffic and a bit of a current, so we could only explore half of the Antilla, but there was still a lot to see. After a few minutes with the life vest, I decided to take it off so I could swim down for a better view. The water was a little choppy and I was surprised at how horrible I was at enduring the pressure once I got down past ten feet or so. I managed to swim deep enough to slap one piece of the Antilla, just to be able to say I touched it, but I was disappointed I couldn't bear to go any deeper. I think I barely got down to about fifteen to twenty feet.

Our next stop was just north of the Ritz at a beach that is famous for attracting sea turtles. We saw one swimming just off the port side of our boat as we pulled up and we had high hopes that we'd see all kinds of exciting sea life, but that turned out to be the only turtle we saw that day. The water was much shallower, only ten feet deep or so, and Andrea and I both left our life vests behind as it was an easy swim. The crew opened up an area for jumping off the port side of the boat and Andrea and I both had fun jumping off. 

Overall, I would say it was one of my most enjoyable snorkeling excursions. Maybe because I didn't have very high expectations, but I was pretty surprised at how enjoyable our day was. The equipment wasn't anything fancy, but the masks were possibly the best I ever used and Andrea and I both didn't have any leaks or problems with the gear.

We walked back to the Ritz and it felt great swimming in the pool after being in the ocean all day. We ate some ice cream at the poolside restaurant before it closed for the day and then relaxed in our room.

Monday was Memorial Day and we slept in, ate lunch at the poolside restaurant, and then we caught a shuttle bus to the UTV tour.

Our tour started off at an animal sanctuary and we were given a bag of carrots and animal food that looked like cocoa puffs. We were allowed to feed the four legged mammals only, and they had quite an assortment. There were donkeys, horses, ponies, monkeys, parrots, snakes, lizards, a camel and an alpaca, peacocks, and probably quite a few that we didn't have time to visit. It was fun feeding them and they were all pretty friendly. The sanctuary was large and we actually could have spent quite a bit more time there, but we didn't have all that long unfortunately. 

The tour operators provided cloth bandanas to help with the dust and they had goggles available for purchase. We hoped our sunglasses would be sufficient and after a brief speech from our guides, we set off.

Our first stop was at a little church on a hill with a nice view. It actually ended up being my favorite part of the entire tour because of the little smoothie truck that was parked nearby. I got a pina colada smoothie and it was the best one I ever had. I watched him make it and it was just whole chunks of pineapple and coconut with ice, but it was so delicious that Andrea decided to go and grab one too just before we set off. 

Sadly, the timing for Andrea's smoothie could not have been worse. It was at this stage of the tour that we departed the paved roads and started down the dusty and bumpy trails. Andrea tried to cover her smoothie as we bumped along, but she lost quite a bit before we stopped and she could enjoy it. We eventually stopped at a picturesque beach, then an old gold processing building, and finally a little cave with an area where we could jump in. 

The UTV adventure was a nice way to see the countryside, which turned out to be a desert, reminiscent of Mars. We inhaled lots of dust on our journey and our clothes were absolutely caked in dust. It was worth doing, but I think it was a little ridiculous that they didn't have goggles available to borrow. 

It felt great when we got back to our hotel to clean up afterwards. In the evening we went to the YOLO Rainforest restaurant for some snacks and apple pie.

Tuesday morning we went out to the Flamingo Beach, which was owned and operated by the Renaissance Hotel. There was a narrow window when day passes were available and thankfully Andrea figured out how to get them and we got our tickets early on Saturday morning. We took a taxi downtown and then found the water taxi that took us to the island. The island was surrounded by mangrove trees, interspersed with waterways and little bridges between the Flamingo Beach and the Iguana Beach. The Flamingo Beach was only open for kids for an hour in the mornings and was otherwise adult exclusive. We first went over to the Flamingo Beach and snapped some pics of the flamingos. Food was available to purchase for the flamingos, and I had been excited to feed them, but we saw a number of people offering food without success. The flamingos at the beach were content to stand around in pairs and ignore the guests. We took a few pics with them and then went over to the Iguana Beach for lunch.

The day passes each came with a $25 food voucher, so we got some chips and shared a chicken salad sandwich. The sandwich was ok, but the chips and guacamole were a joke. The plain round chips looked to just be Tostinos chips and they came with three tiny containers, salsa, guacamole, and a lime ranch type of sauce. We ordered the coconut ice cream for dessert, but they were out of it and brought over some vanilla ice cream with coconut flakes on top instead. It was quite a disappointing lunch. The only highlight of the lunch was watching an angry pelican chase kids around on the beach, attacking anyone that got close.

I'd expected that we would spend the rest of the day at the beach, but thankfully Andrea was clear minded enough to suggest that we head back to our hotel. I assumed we'd stick around, just to get our money's worth out of our day passes, but it was a wise choice to cut our losses and head back to the Ritz. I rented a standup paddleboard for an hour, and then we cleaned up and went to dinner at the hotel bar. 

For dinner, we had edamame and gyoza (pot stickers) and watched the sunset. 

The kids had a signal in Alaska at that time and we took a screenshot of our locations. We talked about it and I think it was the farthest away from them we've ever been.

Wednesday was a day with no plans and we spent our day enjoying the beach, doing some shopping, and relaxing.

Our favorite restaurant on our trip was the lunch at the Ritz pool bar. The hummus was delicious and came with an assortment of pita chips and veggies. The chicken quesadilla wasn't anything super exciting, but it was decent and I loved the papaya hot sauce that was available at every Aruba restaurant. It went perfectly with the meal and I purchased a bottle to bring home.

The pool bar also had a coconut ice cream dessert that we both loved. It was a fairly small portion, but came with lots of fresh fruit and we shared it a few times. 

Overall, the trip to Aruba was a wonderful idea and I'm glad that we were able to spend our weekend and part of our week there while the kids were away. The room at the Ritz was super comfortable, with a beautiful view, and a nice desk where I was able to set up and remain productive as well. Our Apple TV didn't work well because the apps all recognized we were out of the US and most of them locked down.

The only particularly bad part of the trip was the flights and airports. The Orlando airport was a mess on the holiday weekend and we were stuck parking in a parking lot that was miles away from the terminal. It almost made us too late for our flight out. On the way back, we had to wait 30 minutes for the shuttle to take us out to the parking lot. 

The Aruba airport was poorly set up. After checking in our bags and receiving our boarding passes, we were directed to a long and slow line which snaked around outside in the heat. There were some little spray nozzles nearby that were ineffective at doing much, and there were some canvas covers over the sidewalk, but it was super hot. We eventually made it on the plane and thankfully there were no delays, but the multiple long lines and multiple X-Ray areas and security checks were tedious. It was a fun trip overall, but the process of getting in and out were painful enough that it discourages us from wanting to go back any time soon and leaves a bit of a bad impression.

Aruba was beautiful and we loved our time together. So thankful we were able to go back after 19 years and experience the island and everything it had to offer.


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